Carving his pumpkin niche: State Fair exhibitor gains acclaim for his unique art medium

Ray Villafane created this carved pumpkin at the Maryland State Fair Friday.
Ray Villafane created this carved pumpkin at the Maryland State Fair Friday. (KEN KOONS/STAFF PHOTO , Carroll County Times)

TIMONIUM - Halloween may be two months away, but that's not stopping Ray Villafane.

He carves scary faces into pumpkins year round. It's his craft. It's what he enjoys. It's his lucrative career.

Villafane can create lifelike sculptures out of just about anything, but he sticks to carving pumpkins because he tends to draw a crowd, interest and purchasers just about everywhere he goes.

He's spending this weekend at the Maryland State Fair in Timonium showcasing how lifelike his pumpkin sculptures can be. When finished, the carvings have detailed eyes, intricate teeth and circular nostrils.

His goal is to carve two new faces daily from noon to 8 p.m. today through Monday at his exhibition spot inside the Farm and Garden building adjacent to the Maryland State Fair midway.

Just one hour into his Friday shift, he was already surrounded by onlookers, despite not being positioned in a high-traffic fair area. Visitors who came inside the Farm and Garden building to see award-winning tomatoes wound up gawking at Villafane's pumpkin creatures.

At one point, two children stood atop the same folding chair while Villafane showed how to attach a tongue made of pumpkin, of course, to a spooky, carved face.

This isn't exactly how Villafane, a native of Queens in New York, envisioned his professional life developing.

He spent 13 years as an art teacher at a small school for youths of all ages in Bellaire, Mich. As a morale booster, Villafane would bring in and show students spooky Jack-o-Lanterns.

Parents started contacting him with custom-carved requests. And that was when he said he knew he might be able to carve his own niche in a unique medium few professional carvers were investigating.

After stints as a sculpture carver for Warner Bros., Marvel and Hasbro, Villafane decided to take on pumpkin carving full-time last year. He is patenting carving products and pitching his craft as a reality television program.

"The pumpkins started getting an appeal to everyone," he said. "Finally, last year was the first time I said, 'You know what? I'm going to take some time out to work on the pumpkins.'"

It's full-time pumpkins now for the entrepreneurial Villafane, who teams up with Andy Bergholtz, another talented carver, at Villafane Studios. The duo leads a team of carvers that are spanning the globe showcasing their creations. They sell carving tools and pumpkin attachments at http://www.villafanestudios.com.

Villafane will be everywhere from Niagra Falls, N.Y., to Hong Kong in the coming months. The closer to Halloween, the busier Villafane gets.

And when pumpkins are not in season in the Northern Hemisphere, he simply flies somewhere where they are. He spent last spring in New Zealand, where pumpkins are a part of Easter celebrations.

His spooky creations have appeared in the White House, and he also created frightening faces for model Heidi Klum's annual Halloween bash. Villafane also won a pumpkin-carving contest on a Food Network televised competition.

When he creates in New York later this year, he's planning to work with giant pumpkins, creating grisly figures that will be at eye level of the humans gazing at them.

Sure, the sculptures are doomed to quickly rot, forcing Villafane to point to pictures of his iPhone for past works. Yet the impermanence of his craft does not bother him. He still fashions himself an artist, albeit one who works with a unique focus.

Villafane's demonstration is one of the most unique aspects of this year's fair, said Max Mosner, the fair's longtime President and General Manager.

"Some of the things this man does is not what you would typically see on a front porch for Halloween," Mosner said. "[He] is a real artist."

When Villafane decides to focus on something, he puts his full focus into it, said his brother Jeff, who is assisting at the fair carving display.

And for the foreseeable future, that means creating ghoulish pumpkin faces that put typical Jack-o-Lanterns to shame.

"Most people have never thought to put in the effort and time into a pumpkin," he said. "So what I've tried to do is create a company to do that."

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